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The story of Flora, a pachyderm who for 18 years starred in a St. Louis circus that bore her name, is one of good intentions and evolving awareness. As told in the intimate “One Lucky Elephant,” it’s a story of love and heartache and second chances, too. The film is an impressive and affecting entry in the growing body of work addressing the effects of keeping wild animals in captivity. A 10-year project for veteran documentarian Lisa Leeman, it’s receiving its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
They’re very different films, but “Elephant” is, like “The Cove,” driven by an animal lover’s personal awakening. In the earlier film, Rick O’Barry turned his misguided work as a dolphin trainer into an activist’s determination to liberate the sea mammals. In “Elephant,” a circus owner embarks on a decadelong journey to do right by the elephant he adopted as a 2-year-old orphan.
David Balding loves Flora like a daughter; when he married, his wife understood that she was becoming stepmother to the elephant (who was a member of the wedding party). But over the years, Flora’s joy in performing waned. As filmmaker Leeman enters the story, Balding has decided to return the still-young creature to a more natural life in her native Africa. He nixes plans involving a safari camp in Botswana because of worries over poaching and political instability — and perhaps also because of cold feet. Balding’s pursuit of a safe home for Flora puts him on an emotional roller coaster, even after she’s accepted by a seemingly ideal place in Tennessee.
Never preaching, the film integrates information on elephant biology and behavior while gradually revealing more about Flora’s troubled history. Her old and new keepers might end up on opposite sides of an impasse, but everyone means well. Everyone wants what’s best for a spirited, occasionally violent elephant. Even a woman who was seriously injured by her harbors a longing for communion with such a magnificent beast. “Elephant” shows the tenderness and mystery of such communion and why it can’t be strictly on our terms.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production: Crossover Prods./Sandbar Pictures
Director: Lisa Leeman
Screenwriters: Cristina Colissimo, Lisa Leeman
Executive producers: Greg Little, Elizabeth Zox Friedman
Producers: Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim
Director of photography: Sandra Chandler
Composer/co-producer: Miriam Cutler
Editors: Kate Amend, Tchavdar Georgiev
No rating, 81 minutes
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